Locke is 85 minutes long. The entire thing (except for maybe 20 seconds in the opening sequence) takes place inside a moving car. There is only one man in the car. He is Ivan Locke. He is played by Tom Hardy. Ivan Locke is driving on the M6 towards London from a northern suburb. The drive is supposedly going to take an hour and a half. He makes a series of phone calls as he drives.
That’s the movie. He never makes a stop, he never pulls over and interacts with a gas station attendant. It is just Tom Hardy, talking to various people in his life as he makes this drive (which, you learn maybe 10 minutes in, is a momentous one).
He speaks to his wife, he speaks to his teenage son, he speaks to a colleague at work, he speaks to his boss, he speaks to someone else I won’t reveal, and these calls are made methodically, meticulously, call after call after call (multiple calls to each person) handling what needs to be handled during the 90-minute drive to London. Over the course of the film, everything changes. Nobody is the same at the end of it.
Written and directed by Steven Knight, Locke operates like a thriller, and yet the only action is a man in a car. Yet it is a grueling experience, an exhausting emotional cliffhanger. You think it couldn’t possibly be as gripping as it sounds, you think that maybe it sounds like a gimmick, or something that experimental theater groups like to try: “I know! Let’s have all the actors be hanging upside down as they do Othello!” In other words, placing an extreme physical limitation on the properties of the written word – in order to see what kind of theatrical sparks can fly operating within those limitations. (Artists love limitations. Good artists do, anyway.) How could a man making phone calls in the same setting possibly hold your attention for almost 90 minutes? That’s the major thrill of Locke. I have read reviews that give away what the drive is about. Thankfully, I read the reviews after I saw the film. Going into it, all I knew was that the whole thing was just Tom Hardy in the car.
Ivan Locke is a man who has always done the right thing in his life. He is a responsible man. He is a good father. His son’s phone calls about the rugby game he is missing on television speaks to their relationship. You get the whole off-screen picture of who Ivan Locke is in his household, which is essential, because by the end of the film, all of that has been altered. It’s damn near Ibsen-esque: Nora flitting around as a happy childlike housewife at the beginning of A Doll’s House to Nora walking out the door a day later. How did such a transformation occur? How will any of the humans bear it?
Ivan is the foreman of a gigantic construction crew, and the following day there is scheduled a cement pour, the biggest cement pour in the history of Europe, with trucks converging from all over the place. It’s an international company, run out of Chicago, and the pressure is extreme. Ivan Locke is an unflappable guy. You get that. In his job, he is required to micro-manage a pour like this: road closures have to be approved through the local police department, as well as the various neighborhood councils. Every pump has to be checked. And double-checked. Every truck-driver has to be on point, and the cement mixture has to be perfectly right: he has to make sure all of the various distributors send the right thing. If this fails, millions of dollars are at stake. But Ivan Locke is not a panicker. He didn’t plan on having to drive to London, he was completely ready for the cement pour. But circumstances have arisen that makes his drive mandatory. So calls must be made.
The cement pour starts to loom in the foreground as he drives to London. Screaming calls from his boss come in. Panicked shouting from his drunken underling. Problem-solving, under the gun, a careening mis-fire of an event is barreling towards everyone, only hours away and Ivan Locke will not be there.
He hangs up with his boss. He calls his wife. He speaks with his wife. He speaks with his son. He takes a call from the underling, he calms down the underling. He calls the police department to ensure the road closure. He has to track down a councilman to make sure the road will be closed. “I’M IN AN INDIAN RESTAURANT,” screams the annoyed councilman. Ivan slowly, methodically, insistently, keeps working the problem. It is no one’s responsibility but his own, and he takes full responsibility. His voice is soothing and calm, his reaction to panic. He is unable to lie. He does not prevaricate or dissemble. To anyone. He speaks the truth, however destabilizing it will be for those listening. He is that kind of man.
Director Steven Knight has kept it simple, understanding that the event of those phone calls will be (should be) enough to hold our interest. The brilliant cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos fills the screen with reflections and mirroring windows, headlights and street lamps, highways and traffic, swooping across and superimposed over Hardy’s face. The images meld together into one big collage of lights and blurry movement. It’s a moody approach, maybe a bit too … artsy? or complex is maybe the better word … showing a slight concern that what was going on onscreen would not be enough to hold an audience’s interest. The approach is slightly busy, in other words. However, for me, not knowing where the film was going, not knowing why Ivan Locke set off on that fateful drive, the light show did not detract: I zoomed in instantly on the most important thing, which was those phone calls, and Tom Hardy’s acting. The film is gorgeous to look at and gives a sense of loneliness and isolation. People are amazingly private in their cars. They talk to themselves, sing to themselves, they forget they are actually in public. This goes on here, and those swooping dreamy blurry lights help add to the dreamspace feel, the fugue-state feel.
Knight was smart in knowing that the unseen actors on the other end of those phone calls were essential, that these had to feel like real phone calls. There needed to be some major players on the other end. And so the cast he assembled, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels (and more) breathe life into their unseen characters, they are real people on the other end, and you can hear background noises, and doors closing, drawers being opened … all in real-time. It feels spontaneous. I watched the special features and learned that Tom Hardy was out there, “driving” a car, being pulled along by a truck … and the rest of the cast members were holed up in a hotel somewhere, and they would actually call in to him, live, via cell phones. So these were real calls happening, a real in-the-moment back-and-forth. These weren’t voices recorded in a studio, and patched in later (one of the main issues I had with Her: you could tell that those two people were not actually talking to each other.)
Ivan Locke is surrounded by a complex and busy world: he has many obligations, obligations that are NOT a drag on him. He welcomes them, actually. It means he is responsible. It helps him have a sense of identity. He takes pride in being a good husband, an involved father, he takes pride in being a reliable boss, someone people can depend on. It is that very pride that is his … well, not downfall … but it makes him do what he does in the film, it makes him set off on that drive to London. He has made a mistake and he must fix it. Otherwise, who is he? What has his life has been about? If he shirks his responsibility here, in this one thing, he will never be able to look at himself in the mirror again. And so he must live according to his code.
He is trying to do the right thing.
And lives shatter because of it.
The film is a wrenching unforgettable experience. You forget that it’s just Tom Hardy in a damn car. You feel the whole WORLD around this guy. And there’s no way out but through. Call by call by call …